She was every greeting card illustrator’s vision of the angelic blonde child: milk-pale skin and eyes as blue as polished slate, perfect ringlets of a blonde so blonde it was nearly white. She was the girl that girls like me—fat and loud, with our bowl haircuts and our Goodwill dresses—should have envied. But she was too sweet; not that kind of tactical sweetness that pretty girls learn early on, but a quiet decency that many adults would’ve done well to acquire.

I was living in a group home in Pacific Palisades.  He was a friend of my brother’s and had accidentally fallen in love with me. I remember a night when we lay side by side in the dark, he talking about his mother’s death and me, the loss of my wild crazy mother.  Both of us talking, tears secretly rolling down our cheeks.   At midnight I said, “It’s my birthday.  This is my first birthday without my mom.”  Then, in the pouring rain, he drove me to go buy tampons.  I sat in his 1976 Volare.  He ran up to the 7-11 window, tapped on the glass, and held up two different tampon boxes.  He was big and Puerto Rican and overly pierced and his laugh was awkward but something told me that with all of his giant features and doofiness he really did love me.

My birthday is a good time to inventory my accumulated wisdom. Sadly, there ain’t much. The longer I live, the less I know. But what I do know will fit quite comfortably here.

I will spare you the obvious. If you haven’t figured out by now that you should be good to other people, I can’t help you. I will omit those issues that divide us, such as whose politics rocks harder and which religion has the most vengeful god. And I won’t go anywhere near the stockpile of trivia that chokes my brain, things that would only appeal to specialists, like batting averages, chess openings, and how to put a positive spin on disco.

What’s left? The Magnificent 7: Seven items that I hope will have some practical use for someone other than me. Keep in mind that everything I’m about to say flows from the perspective of a heterosexual, Jewish, innately lazy married male with no children and you should be fine.

Ready? Here we go!

Item 1: Get a dog. No matter how you feel about life on any given day, if you own a dog you will have to feed the dog. You’ll have to walk the dog. You’ll have to adopt a schedule that benefits the dog. When you’re standing in the rain and the cold searching your pockets for a plastic bag, you won’t be mired in existential dread, you’ll be thinking about how good it’ll be to get back inside where it’s warm and dry. A dog will teach you to savor the little things that make this life so sweet.

Don’t like dogs? Get a cat. A cat has a very different lesson to teach, and that lesson is: You are not important.

Item 2: Volunteer. When you’re younger it’s difficult to find the time and the motivation to volunteer. It gets easier as you get older. This is why retired people often claim they’re so busy, they don’t know how they ever found the time to work. Finding the volunteer activity that suits you best could be a lengthy process, but I’ve found a way to speed it up. Volunteer for three to six things over the next year or two. At the end of that time you’ll know which one you want to pursue. Do that one and drop the rest.

Remember the secret to volunteering: It’s not true that we get more from volunteering than what we put in. Sometimes we feel we’re getting very little back. Sometimes we feel empty. Sometimes we feel aggravated. No matter what you feel, volunteering always does someone some good. That’s why you should do it. Don’t feel appreciated after a particularly tough effort? Remember what the cat taught you.

Item 3: Wide world of men. Women: Stop complaining that men are simple. Granted, my gender is not as complicated as yours. But if men were as complicated as women, there’d be no human race. And stop reading Cosmo. They say they can explain men, but they’re lying.

Item 4: Women 101. Men: Listen up, simpletons. Stop wondering what women want and ask them. The answer will change from year to year, month to month, and possibly day to day. Keep asking. You’re not bothering them; they’ll enjoy the attention. Remember the secret to successful asking: It’s called listening!

Item 5: What to do after you say “I do.” On the day I got married, we had two friends in attendance who’d been married for 23 years. We thought they were an old married couple. Today, they’ve been married 46 years and we’ve been married 23. What makes a marriage work? All I can tell you is that you should never spend a dollar on a book, a class, a seminar, or on anyone who promises you the answer, because there is none. What works for me isn’t going to work for you. It might not even work for me next year. I suggest you take the money you were going to spend on the book, class, etc. and take your partner to dinner or dancing or to the beach. That I know will work.

Item 6: How to go to bed. Every day, do one thing you give a damn about. It may take you an hour, it make take you a few minutes. Do it. When you shut your eyes at night, the next-to-the-last thing you think of should be that thing you did. The last thing should be expressing your thanks to whatever or whomever you thank when the lights go out. Accomplishment and gratitude are two of the three most important ingredients for a good night’s sleep. (The third is exiling the person who snores.)

Item 7: Your 3am panic attack. What do you do when you can’t sleep, you can’t stop thinking about what you haven’t done or may never do or the people you’ve lost, the walls are closing in and you can’t breathe? Get out of bed. Move. Do not activate anything with a screen. Wash the dishes. Play the piano. Brush your teeth. Go for a walk. You can walk in your neighborhood at 3am. Statistically, it’s the safest time of the day to walk.

Don’t want to walk alone? Item 1: Get a dog!

“Happy Mother’s Day, Ladies”, Mrs. G’s voice rang out strong and southern in the cavernous prison unit, where two hundred women were waking up far away from their babies.

Her voice hit me hard in the chest and I thought of my brown haired boy. His second birthday a month away and there was nothing I could do to get back to him. This is an unimaginable kind of powerlessness. Even when it’s happening to you.

I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a rock star. For the two years I took gymnastics I thought I would go to the Olympics. I thought maybe I would be a lesbian. I fully intended to be a poor writer, living in an apartment somewhere in New York with two or three dogs and no electricity. I considered doing the same in the country except that the basic necessities would take up all my time. I feared I would live out the dream scene in Look Who’s Talking, in which Kirstie Alley’s character pictures her life if she married John Travolta’s character. I got really close on that one. I thought I might be single for a while. I thought of becoming a happy old maid. I thought I’d be dead by now. Not for any particular reason, of course. Just because, which is why I think most things.

I also wanted to be a saint. Not just any saint, though. Not the kind that get her sainthood by doing a lot of nice things for other people. Not the kind who donates money, volunteers, feeds the poor, touches dirty people and so forth. I wanted to be a martyr. I wanted to be one of those virgins who got thrown to the lions rather than betray her vow of purity, one of those who were so beautiful that to protect their virginity, they mutilated their beautiful faces. I considered becoming a nun because the idea of alternately praying and working in a vegetable garden within the stone walls of a convent sounded sublime. I hated tomatoes, but I could imagine the freshness and beautiful red ripeness of tomatoes grown by the virtuous women of my would-be convent. I thought a vow of silence would be fab. Then I learned about sex. In the eighth grade, I thought really hard and decided I couldn’t become a nun because I liked boys too much. Not boys, really, but guys. The ones who notice you. The ones who toss meaningful glances across the church when you are sitting in your pew pretending to pray.

I thought my mom would die when I was 16 because when she was 16, her mom died. I thought I was really lucky to still have a mom at 17, and then I thought I was pretty dumb because if she was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she would’ve died when my older sister turned 16, since my mom was the oldest of her family. But the whole pattern started to lose credibility because my mom was the oldest of three while there were four kids in our family, and the oldest was a boy. That was a turning point.

I wanted to be terribly skinny, but that was never going to happen. I wanted to be one of those girls that other girls call “skinny bitch,” because even if other girls hate you, at least you’re skinny, which is the most valuable trait a woman can have. But starving myself was out of the question, and I couldn’t bring myself to puke, not even with a spoon down the throat. Then I thought maybe I’d just lose a few pounds. I wanted to be crazy and wear dark eye liner and be excused for things because people thought I was “sensitive.” Then I got therapy, and I wanted to be listened to. And I wanted a big dictionary, and I got it, but I never open it because it’s too damned big, and who needs a dictionary that big when you’ve got internet, anyway? Then I got group therapy and realized I was comparatively incredibly well-adjusted, and that as fucked up as I was, so was everyone else. Then I just wanted to be left alone and not to have to listen to these people anymore, and then I told this girl in therapy to say hi to my old best friend who went to her high school, and only years later did I realize how awkward that must have been. “Hey, I’m in group therapy with your best friend from junior high, and she says to tell you hi.”

I considered becoming a Realtor. I worked in customer service, selling shoes, then selling jeans, then selling coffee. Turns out it doesn’t matter what I’m selling. I cannot be nice to people purely in the hopes of receiving money from them. I waited tables at a seedy strip club while wearing a black leotard, shiny tights, black heels and red lipstick for a week until a man offered me money to go home with him and a stripper tried to give me lessons on how to upsell: Don’t just make do with cash — offer to start him a tab. Ask him if he’d like to meet one of the girls. Don’t call them dancers, call them ladies. Then she did her dominatrix routine on stage in something resembling an Aeon Flux outfit. I really just wanted to hang out in the dressing room and watch them. One of them threw her cell phone across the room upon learning her boyfriend had spent all their rent money. On what, I wasn’t sure. Then a woman called Luna, who was the mother of a five-year-old boy, made the sign of the cross and said a blessing over her plate of spaghetti in front of the large makeup mirror all the girls shared. Her glittered breasts dangled precariously close to the marinara. I took cigarette breaks every fifteen minutes or so, and a stripper told me I should quit because smoking would ruin my good looks. I didn’t know I had any such thing, and I told her I didn’t care. I kept smoking for a couple years, but I took a job at the Gap a couple weeks later. I folded some shirts for a week and didn’t sell a single pair of jeans.

I wanted to be a journalist, or at least a copy editor, but I’m a bad speller and terrified of interviewing. I can’t write fast enough. I want to learn shorthand. I want to write a book. I want so much. I have wanted so much, but I have so much else.